Thursday, November 30, 2006

How should I decorate my Jesse Tree?

Who's asking: Many recent visitors to this blog, according to my site meter

The site meter on this blog gives me the search strings that bring people here, which is not always a good thing. To the person who landed here looking for "how to seduce your mother," I say: Seek professional help now. To all the various Googlers hunting for girls of one kind or another, I say: Your chances will improve if you take a shower and step away from your computer once in a while.

People looking for Jesse tree decoration hints get sent to this entry from last year, in which I explained that the Jesse tree is Christianity's answer to the Christmas tree, a pagan symbol. (By the way, this distinction strikes me as a little silly. If all things glorify the Lord, why shouldn't we borrow customs from pagans?)

Anyway, the Jesse tree is supposed to be decorated with Chrismon(TM) ornaments, "Chrismon" being short for "Christ monograms." You can buy them online, but if you're sincerely putting up a Jesse tree to honor the Nativity (rather than to impress your friends with your Pharisean piety), you should make your own.

The traditional colors for these ornaments are white and gold, and they are meant to be symbols of faith: crosses, the star of David, the fleur-de-lis (representing the Trinity), doves (representing the Holy Spirit), etc. Catholic Jesse trees often have ornaments marked with the pyx (the Greek letters chi and rho, superimposed on each other, standing for Christ) and the Constantinian monogram IHS (in hoc signo vinces, under this sign victory).

In one of my closets is a big plastic bin of Christmas decorations that hasn't been opened since I got to Maine. It remains to be seen whether I'll open it this year. I am not feeling terribly Christmasy at the moment, especially since the temperature here is spiking to nearly 60 today.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why don't you post pictures on this blog?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX; Susan Lamb, Richmond, VA; various other people

My standard answer to this question was that I did not own a digital camera, and thus had no easy way of taking or posting photographs to the blog.

The more complicated answer is that I'm not a picture-taker, and never have been. Anyone who's driven with me knows that I don't process visual information as quickly as I process other sensory input (that's my defense, I'm sticking to it). I'd much rather go blind than deaf (a statement that's going to come back to haunt me some day).

Furthermore, I feel a little superstitious about photographs. I tend not to take pictures for the same reason I don't usually buy souvenirs for myself when I'm traveling (though I like to buy them for other people, the tackier the better). Recording an image or a moment acknowledges its transience; it says, "This is over, we're never coming back, remember this?" I don't want to document the things I've lost. I prefer not to think of time as linear, and to believe that no losses are permanent.

All that said, my first answer to this question is no longer valid. Through the unexpected and overwhelming generosity of the above-mentioned Mr. Tomme, I now own a digital camera. Therefore, by popular demand, I'm going to start posting a photo or two a week up here -- but in my own way, for my own purposes.

Above is the first picture I took and saved with the new camera. I invite you to leave captions for it in the comments section.

And here are the first five random songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

“Goodnight Irene,” The Weavers. A Mighty Wind kind of wrecked my ability to appreciate The Weavers without irony, but this song remains a classic.

“Bloodletting (The Vampire Song),” Concrete Blonde. Whatever happened to these guys?

“High as a Kite,” The Pernice Brothers. This birthday brought excellent contributions to my music library, including this latest album, Live a Little. As a friend said, it sounds just like The Pernice Brothers… but what’s wrong with that?

“Trouble Me,” 10,000 Maniacs. This is the live version, off the MTV Unplugged album. I like Natalie Merchant’s voice better live; she tends to be over-produced. (Ed, keep your anti-Natalie Merchant comments to yourself. You’re just wrong about this, and that’s the end of the discussion.)

“I Have the Touch,” Peter Gabriel. Remember when Peter Gabriel used to be cool? When exactly did that end, and why?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Is it snowing by you?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

It is not. Although the temperature is only 32F (0C for those of you reading abroad), what is falling from the sky is very, very cold rain, and it could not possibly be any more miserable. The cold is that bone-cracking, damp chill that makes you feel you will never be warm again ever, ever, ever in your whole life, even if you boil your feet and wrap yourself in 20 blankets.

Even Dizzy, normally oblivious to the cold, has wadded himself up in a pile of blankets on my bed. He thinks it's a good day for a nap, and I am having a hard time disagreeing -- but he is a sporting dog and I am a working dog, so it's time for another cup of coffee. A very HOT cup of coffee.

Monday, November 27, 2006

How many of your friends pick up a dictionary looking for one word, and wind up reading the whole thing?

Who's asking: Linda Brown, Sherman Oaks, CA

Today is a do-it-yourself question, because I am swamped to the point of panic and had no business taking all that time off this past weekend. (I did, however, see two highly entertaining movies: The Departed and Casino Royale. Check them out. That Daniel Craig is one fine, fine... uh... actor. He's a fine actor, yes indeed he is.)

I suspect you are looking for validation of your own habits, Linda, and I am happy to give it to you. At a guess, I'd say all my friends are dictionary browsers -- because if you aren't someone who appreciates the entertainment value of a dictionary, I don't think we should be friends any more.

To prove my point, I challenge everyone who visits today to open a dictionary to any page, and post a cool random word in the comments section. I'll start:

rin-der-pest (rĭn'dər-pĕst) n. An acute, often fatal, contagious viral disease, chiefly of cattle, characterized by ulceration of the alimentary tract and resulting in diarrhea.

Isn't knowledge a wonderful thing? Leave your own discoveries below.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

How many countries are there in the world?

Who's asking: Therese Schulz, Herrsching, Germany

You'd think this would be a simple question with a straightforward answer, but it's not. It varies, it depends on whom you ask, and it depends on how you define "country."

For our purposes, let's define "country" the way international law does, meaning a geographic territory with its own government whose boundaries are recognized by other countries, and which represents itself independently before international organizations. By this definition, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not countries; nor is Puerto Rico.

Under this definition, the world has 192, 193, or 194 countries. The United Nations has 192 member countries. The United States recognizes ambassadors from 193 countries; the extra one is Vatican City, which is not a member of the U.N. Some Chinese nationalists argue that the true number is 194, which includes Taiwan. The U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan as a separate country, but this is diplomatic weaselry to appease mainland China.

So if you ask me, I say the number is 194; if you ask your teacher, she'll probably say 193. Remember, too, that there are at least half a dozen "wars of national liberation" being fought around the world at any given time -- if you ask this question again next year, you might get a different answer.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What are babesiosis and Chagas disease?

Who's asking: Me (yes, I know I've given myself two questions in a row; it's my blog, dammit)

I'm off to give blood this morning at the Gardiner Lions' Club, and will have to fill out the usual questionnaire about whether I've ever been in prison, gotten tattooed, or used needles for illicit drugs (in case you were wondering: No. No. No.). The questionnaire also asks about various exotic diseases, including these two.

I've always figured that if I've never heard of them, I haven't had them, but this may not necessarily be true for babesiosis. Babesiosis is a parasitic infection carried by northern deer ticks, which are rampant up here. People with Lyme disease -- carried by those same ticks -- often have babesiosis as well.

The most common form of babesiosis in the United States is often asymptomatic, but severe cases can cause symptoms similar to malaria: fever, chills, muscle aches and weakness, fatigue and an enlarged spleen. Treatment for babesiosis is also similar to that for malaria, with a combination of antibiotic and antiparasitic medications.

Chagas disease is another parasitic infection, endemic to South America. Chagas disease is transmitted by the so-called "kissing bugs" (triatomine bugs) that live in cracks and holes of substandard housing through Latin America. Again, many people with the disease never display any symptoms, but in severe cases it can cause brain damage, organ enlargement, fever, chronic fatigue and even death. The CDC estimates that chronic Chagas infection decreases victims' life-spans by an average of nine years.

Since both of these illnesses are bloodborne, it's a good thing the Red Cross asks about them. For hypochondriacs like me, though, it's just one more thing to worry about...

What I Read This Week

Scott Smith, The Ruins. Uh... we waited 12 years for this? Smith follows his dazzling 1994 debut, A Simple Plan, with this horror novel about a group of young people who take a foolhardy trip into the Mexican jungle, and live just long enough to regret it. People whose opinions I respect have raved about this book as an exercise in suspense, but not even one of these characters seemed real enough for me to care what happened to them. Bleah, bleah and once again bleah. I felt quite cranky about this.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses. An inspired, entertaining look at how civilization has been shaped by the invention, development and distribution of six key human beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. Great fun, full of fascinating tidbits of information and insights about what each culture's choice of beverage says about it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is it true that turkeys are so stupid they can drown in the rain?

Who's asking: Me

I first heard this rumor from an old boyfriend whose father was a feed salesman, and the idea of it enchanted me -- I could imagine entire flocks of turkeys looking at the sky, then falling on their backs as the water filled their beaks and drowned them.

Sadly, it's not true. Basic turkey anatomy prevents it. Turkeys' eyes are on opposite sides of their heads, so they don't look up in the same way we do (or, for you Shaun of the Dead fans, the same way dogs do). Instead, they tilt their heads sideways to see things above them. This does not expose their nostrils to rainfall, any more than their beaks would already be exposed.

That said, turkeys are seriously stupid animals. Wild turkeys are dumb -- I have come close to hitting more than one that was just strolling across a road, oblivious to cars -- and domesticated turkeys are even dumber, as they've had all their survival instincts bred out of them. describes incidents in which domestic turkeys, startled, have panicked and run to a corner or a fence, where they've piled up and smothered each other. I am a bad, bad person for giggling at that mental image. I do object in principle to factory farming, and buy organic meats when I can; but I am also grateful that turkeys are just so darn tasty, and dumb enough to let us eat them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Is it possible to survive on a diet of nothing but pumpkin pie?

Who's asking: John Erath, Arlington, VA

I've been saving this question for Thanksgiving week, because I too am extremely fond of pumpkin pie -- for that matter, I'm extremely fond of pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, stewed pumpkin, and roasted pumpkin.

The answer to this question is yes -- at least for a while. Pumpkin pie includes all the major food groups, but not exactly in the proportions we're supposed to eat them. According to one analysis I found, a slice of pumpkin pie has 320 calories, of which 48% (153 calories) comes from fat. As a rule, we're only supposed to get 30% of our calories from fat, but pumpkin pie is undoubtedly better for you than a Big Mac.

While pumpkin pie is a fantastic source of Vitamin A and a decent source of Vitamins C, D and E, you'd probably need to take B supplements after a while. The beta carotene in pumpkin might turn your skin yellow or orange after a while, and you might not get enough iron from a pumpkin pie-based diet.

All that said, it might be worth the risk... for a day or two. Moderation in everything, including moderation.

I'm off to Hannaford to buy my canned pumpkin right now.

First five random songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Miss Otis Regrets/Just One of Those Things," Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues. Off the Red Hot & Blue tribute album, a perversely cheerful cover of a Cole Porter medley. One of my favorites.

"Could It Be Forever," The Partridge Family. As part of my birthday celebration, I copied my Partridge Family Greatest Hits CD to my iTunes library. In my heart, I'm still six years old -- and 16 -- and 26.

"Chimes of Freedom," The Byrds. The Byrds' sound is eternal.

"Fragments of Fragments," The Who. From the new CD, Endless Wire; it's an echo of "Baba O'Riley," and somehow brings everything back around. See Pete Townshend's recent journal entry for his own take on the aging process.

"Why," Annie Lennox. Weirdly appropriate for this week, which has brought many long-quiet voices back into my life. I guess that's what birthdays are for. "This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What will happen to the FREE KATIE movement now that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are married?

Who's asking: Jim Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been a member and advocate of the FREE KATIE movement since it first began in my cousin Sheila's living room. Almost two years, several disappointing movies, one baby and an extravagant Italian wedding later, the need to provide encouragement and sanctuary to the new Mrs. Kate Cruise has never been greater. After spending the past weekend shrouded in black, the members of FREE KATIE remain committed to the cause. We hope, we pray and we remain convinced that it is only a matter of time.

Short post today, as I'm trying to get to Portland for lunch -- everyone's favorite magical Irishman, John Connolly, will be reading from and discussing The Book of Lost Things at the Portland Public Library. All the cool kids will be there.

Monday, November 20, 2006

What's it like to be a twin?

Who's asking: Alex Trebek, Los Angeles, CA

All right, this is egregious name-dropping even for me, and he asked me this question seven years ago, so using it today is a stretch. But today's my birthday -- which means that it is also the birthday of my twin sister, Kathy -- so it seemed appropriate for the occasion.

What I told Mr. Trebek (I don't know him well enough to call him Alex) was that I couldn't really say, since I had always been a twin and had nothing to compare it to. It's one of those questions that's always baffled me: what's it like to be right-handed? What's it like to have blue eyes? (OK, the answers to those are: 1) Convenient and 2) No one knows what it's like to be the bad man -- to be the sad man --)

Having a fraternal twin is like having any other sibling, except more so. From the day of one's birth, the essential pronoun is "we," not "I." We learned to share, to cooperate and to compete before we could talk. When Kathy and I were very small, I did most of the talking for both of us, since she was shy and had a serious hearing loss; thus, my later career as a spokeswoman might have been foreordained. (Kathy got over her shyness and most of the hearing loss, and no longer has any trouble speaking for herself.)

When you're a twin, you worry a lot about what's fair, but not just about making sure you get yours. I learned very early, for better or worse, what made Kathy mad, sad, and glad. I'm sorry to say I have not always used these powers for good -- but what are siblings for?

Like most children in large families, I went through phases of wishing desperately that I'd been an only child. As an adult, I'm grateful beyond words to have my sisters and brothers. Everyone ought to be part of a large family, and everybody ought to be a twin. It's much less lonely this way.

So today I say happy birthday, Kathy, and many happy returns. We're in this thing together.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Who were the Cyclades?

Who's asking: Claire Bea, Montreal, QC

Ordinarily I don't answer questions for people who are doing their homework, but this one is only tangential to a paper Claire's writing about traffic in stolen antiquities. She came across a reference to someone as the world's leading expert in Cycladic culture, and had never seen the name before.

I wasn't familiar with it either, so we consulted Claire's brother Chris, who happens to be writing his own big paper on certain aspects of ancient Greek history.

He was kind enough not to mock us when he explained that the Cyclades are not people, they're a group of islands in the Aegean sea. The largest and best-known of these is Naxos. They were the home of a sophisticated Early Bronze Age civilization that, among other things, carved distinctive idols out of native white marble. The Cycladic civilization, which combined elements of both the Anatolian and Helladic cultures, was superceded by the Minoan culture that rose around 2700 B.C.

Cycladic idols, which resemble modern sculpture, have been looted from archaeological sites and sold on black markets around the world. Because they were removed from their original locations, archeologists may never fully understand their purpose or meaning. As if that weren't enough reason never to buy anything advertised as a "Cycladic figurine," many of the works now on the market are fakes. You can see examples of the real thing here.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Why don't Americans pronounce the "h" in "herb"?

Who's asking: Dan Freedman, Cheshire, UK

First, before any rumors start when people click through to that link: I have no current plans to join any radical Afro-jazz musical groups. (I could probably make my hair form dreadlocks if I tried, though.)

I am sorry to have to tell you, Dan, that the American pronunciation of this word ("urb") is the correct one. English borrowed this word from the French, who did not pronounce the "h," in a manner similar to the words honor, hour, and heir. The English restored the voiced "h" at some point, when they added the voiced "h" back to other French-derived words, such as humble and human. (Donald Trump didn't get the memo about this, but Americans pronounce those h's, too.)

So we actually pronounce "herb" in a more traditional and accurate way, except when we use it as a prefix in the words herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore. Our mother tongue is a capricious mistress, not to say a vicious bitch.

What I Read These Weeks (special double edition):

Peter Spiegelman, Red Cat. Peter Spiegelman's private investigator, John March, is the black-sheep son of a prominent New York investment banking family. In this third outing, March's own brother, David, comes to him in desperation for help in identifying a blackmailer. The only identifying information David can give his brother about the woman he had an affair with is that she had a red cat tattoo. When a corpse with that tattoo is pulled out of the East River, John has to figure out just how much trouble his brother is in. Spiegelman is among the best writers in crime fiction today; I'd go so far as to say he's this generation's heir to Ross Macdonald, offering sharp and compassionate observations about the way families keep their secrets. This book comes out next February.

Megan Abbott, The Song is You. Abbott's second novel is based on the 1949 disappearance of actress Jean Spangler, whose purse was found in Griffith Park days after she was last seen. As in her first book, Die a Little, Abbott gives us an almost hallucinatory picture of 1950s Los Angeles, following her main character, a burnt-out Hollywood press agent, as he digs for the truth about what happened to Jean. And as in any classic noir novel, no one gets out of this one unscathed. Well done.

Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage. Michael and Pauline fall in love with each other the week after Pearl Harbor, and the fever of wartime sweeps them into marriage before they can realize that they are wholly unsuited to each other. Tyler follows them through the next six decades, through birth and death and loss and divorce, illuminating the nature of marriage, and of love that persists even when you can't stand each other. Anne Tyler has always been one of my favorite novelists, but this book stands above almost everything she's written.

Chris Grabenstein, Mad Mouse. Grabenstein's first novel, Tilt-a-Whirl, won the Anthony for Best First Novel, and while I was rooting for my own client (Theresa Schwegel) to win, and also really, really loved Megan Abbott's first book, I was delighted to see Tilt-a-Whirl get some formal recognition. Grabenstein's heroes, the young cop-in-training Danny Boyle and his partner, the formidable John Ceepak, return in this sequel, which is just as good as the first book. As the town of Sea Haven, NJ prepares for a blowout Labor Day weekend, someone starts taking shots with a paintball rifle at Danny and his friends -- but then the shots are real.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What did you think of Borat?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

Yesterday afternoon I knocked off early and drove to Brunswick to catch the twilight show of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with the Lechners. We were the youngest people in the theater by a decent margin, and one lady got up and left the theater halfway through the movie.

We were a little surprised that only one person left. The movie could not possibly be any more offensive; it is gratuitously disgusting, and culminates in a nude man-on-man wrestling scene that I would give a lot to wipe from my memory.

That said, it's also the funniest, most subversive, most brilliant movie I've seen in years, and should be required viewing for every voting-age American.

It's a movie that answers once and for all the question, "Why does the rest of the world hate us so much?" Well, it's because too many of us are smug, ignorant, mean and incurious about anything outside our immediate orbit. Almost everyone who fell victim to Borat is accusing him of setting them up, but he's more like Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: a communications-impaired audience to the careless, the unkind and the self-absorbed.

The movie includes only one set piece that I felt was unfair to Borat's targets; it really is too much to expect a group of people to respond with equanimity to someone who comes to the dinner table with a napkin full of excrement.

Did I enjoy it? Hard to say. I laughed at parts, but I also squirmed, and it made me ashamed at points of not only my Americanness, but my humanity. Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- I'll probably see it again.

Sorry today's post is so late. My head is far, far down, as I'm really hoping to take a big chunk of next week off. Lots of things to move out the door between now and then.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What are the rules for the use of "that" and "which"?

Who's asking: Mary Maschino, Gardiner, ME

At some point, grammar rules fall into such complete neglect that they might as well not even exist anymore. I often wonder whether this has happened to "that" vs. "which," and I wonder even more about "that" vs. "who."

Still, my whole life's been about lost causes and hopeless cases, so here's the rule. (Note: just to confuse things, this is the rule for American English; the rule for British English is almost the opposite. If you're reading this in the U.K., disregard the next couple of paragraphs.)

Using "that" instead of "who" is an error that irritates me more, so let's take care of that first: "that" refers to animals and inanimate objects. "Who" refers to people. If you write "the man that shot me," instead of "the man who shot me," you are not only demonstrating your ignorance, you are expressing a disregard of other people's humanity that borders on sociopathy. (Yeah, I feel strongly about this.)

"That" introduces an essential clause that is necessary to identify whatever you're describing: "This is the gun that shot me."

"Which" introduces a nonessential clause that merely provides additional information about something you've already identified. "The gun, which the killer had purchased the day before, still shone with its original factory oil."

A good rule of thumb, if you're confused, is to look at the punctuation. "Which" almost always needs a comma in front of it; "that" rarely does.

First Five Random Songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

“Pain (Makes You Beautiful),” the Judybats. Title track off a great album. The Judybats are a Knoxville-based band that was very popular in the DC area in the early to mid-1990s... they’re still playing, but I don’t think they have a record deal anymore. They put on an excellent show, if you ever get a chance to see them live.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks,” The Who. From Tommy; like several tracks in this rock opera, it doesn’t stand particularly well by itself.

“Rainy Days and Mondays,” Cracker. Another great cover from If I Were a Carpenter. If I ever wanted to send someone spiraling into depression, I’d make him a CD that included this song, along with Sinead O’Connor’s cover of “Gloomy Sunday,” Beck’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” and a few other choice cuts. Better hit the fast-forward...

“White Limousine,” Duncan Sheik. Duncan Sheik is trying hard to be this generation’s Nick Drake (without the suicidal mood swings, I hope). It’s not as distinctive a sound – or maybe Drake’s influence is too pervasive on Sheik and his contemporaries – but I still like this album a lot.

“Where I Go,” Natalie Merchant. One of the less memorable tracks on this album (Tigerlily).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When is Kate's Christmas party?

Who's asking: Several people at the New England Crime Bake, last weekend

Kate's Mystery Books will be having its annual holiday party on Friday, December 8. Festivities will begin around 5:00 p.m and go until about 9:00, or until Kate kicks everybody out.

Authors who have said they plan to attend include Reed Farrel Coleman, Joseph Finder, Chuck Hogan, Chris Mooney, Karen Olson, Peter Spiegelman, and Sarah Stewart Taylor. Everyone is welcome; if you're an author who'd like to attend, shoot Kate an e-mail or call her (the number's on her site) to make sure she has your books on hand for the party. If you're a reader, there's no better opportunity in all of New England to meet dozens of authors in a relaxed, congenial setting.

In the interests of fair play, I should also mention that The Mystery Bookstore's holiday open house is scheduled for Saturday, December 9, from 1:00 to 7:00 p.m. It promises to be an equally fabulous event, with the slight disadvantage that I myself will not be there. Our Chris is playing Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream at St. John's that night, and even I have not figured out a way to be in two places at once.

Best and happiest birthday greetings today to the ageless Carla Forbes-Kelly, even though it's almost tomorrow already where she is.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Do you know why I stopped you?

Who's asking: A police officer at the end of the Lowell Connector, around 9:00 yesterday morning.

"Was I speeding?" I asked, and the policeman said, "Yes." The speed limit on the Lowell Connector is 55 miles per hour; the Connector ends abruptly, dumping people onto a street with a speed limit of 35. He was waiting right at the intersection, watching for unwary motorists.

"You don't even speed," Anna said when I told her this story, and it's true; his radar gun clocked me at 56 MPH. Since that was more than 20 miles above the speed limit for the new road, I was lucky he didn't give me a reckless driving citation. He also cited me for a dead headlight I didn't know had burned out, bringing the total price of the ticket to $260 -- plus, of course, whatever it costs to get the headlight fixed.

File this one under "no good deed goes unpunished." I was in Lowell this weekend as a volunteer bookseller for Kate's Mystery Books; she paid for my hotel room on Friday night, but gas and all other expenses were on my own dime. I don't do any active business development at these things, but it's useful to me to meet people and be able to put faces with names.

I feel as if the universe just whacked me with a hammer. It doesn't help that it's cold and rainy this morning, Dizzy has a new and angry-looking hot spot, and I'm so tired I can't put two words together.

In happier news, The Mousetrap closed to full and appreciative audiences, and I did get to have dinner with Reed Farrel Coleman and Karen Olson on Friday night, which was worth any other aggravations the weekend may have held.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Why is it called a "yo-yo"?

Who's asking: Keith Bea, Alexandria, VA

First of all, I have to say how flattered I am to be asked a question from a major-league researcher and policy analyst -- Keith works for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where he investigates far more serious matters and does not have time to waste on the sort of thing we wonder about at

His actual question was based on his discovery that the word "yo-yo" is the Tagalog name for the toy; how did Americans pick up a word from Tagalog?

I've always thought of yo-yos as being one of those mass media-created mid-20th century crazes, like the Hula Hoop or the Frisbee. A little time on the official website of the National Yo-Yo Contest and Museum showed me how wrong I was.

Yo-yos are one of the oldest human toys, with references going back to 500 B.C. They probably originated in China, but Greek vases from around 500 B.C. show youths playing with yo-yos, and archeologists have found terracotta yo-yos in temple ruins. Egyptian illustrations also show things that look like yo-yos.

Yo-yos landed in Europe in the late 18th century, and a 1789 painting shows the doomed Dauphin Louis playing with his emigrette ("little emigrant"). They were all the rage in Napoleon's court, by which time they were called "joujou de Normandie." (This is one theory for the origin of the name "yo-yo," but it's incorrect.) By 1791 the toy had made it to England, where it was called a "bandalore" or a "quiz." The first mention of the toy in the U.S. came in 1866, when two men filed a patent application for "an improved bandalore."

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the planet, Filipino toymakers had perfected their own version of the toy, made of wood. A 1916 Scientific American supplement included the yo-yo in an article on "Filipino Toys;" the name, the article said, meant "come-come" or "return" in Tagalog.

Pedro Flores brought the first Filipino yo-yos to California in the 1920s, and opened a factory in 1928. Flores' yo-yos were carved from a single piece of wood. Instead of having a string tied to the central axle, Flores looped the string to allow the axle to keep spinning -- the "sleeping" action that makes most modern yo-yo tricks possible.

Entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan Sr. saw Flores doing tricks with his yo-yo in San Francisco in 1928 or 1929, and was so impressed he bought the company. A marketing genius, he sent teams of "Duncan Yo-Yo Professionals" around the country to put on exhibitions of all the cool tricks you could do with a yo-yo. He trademarked the word "yo-yo" in 1932, and opened the Duncan Yo-Yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin, in 1946.

By 1965, the word "yo-yo" had become so universal that the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Duncan could no longer hold on to the trademark. The Duncan Company was forced into bankruptcy later that year; the Flambeau Plastics Company purchased the yo-yo business, and continues to produce 11 different models of Duncan yo-yos. June 6, Donald Duncan's birthday, is now designated as National Yo-Yo Day. (Not to be obnoxious, but I'd like to know when Pedro Flores' birthday is, and what holiday he gets.)

I myself have been yo-yoing to and from Massachusetts this week, and leave again in a couple of hours for the New England Crime Bake, happening this weekend in Lowell. Gaslight Theater's performances of The Mousetrap continue this weekend at Hallowell City Hall; I won't be there tonight, but will be back for closing night tomorrow (and then back in Lowell on Sunday morning. What was I saying about the beneficial effects of caffeine?).

No reading list this morning, as I'm already too far behind. No posts tomorrow or Sunday, either -- check back for books and more on Monday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can one drink too much caffeine?

Who's asking: Jennifer Jordan, Wisconsin

Jen asks this question on behalf of a certain Midwestern publishing whiz kid she knows: "The man drinks Red Bull allllllllllll day, and as a good friend, I worry."

I would worry about anyone with a taste for Red Bull -- I'm pretty sure that stuff is nothing more than barely-diluted Mountain Dew syrup -- but the caffeine question is a good one.

Caffeine, a naturally-occurring plant alkaloid, is one of many proofs (in my mind) of a God who loves us and wants us to be happy. Caffeine in small to moderate amounts is not only not harmful, but beneficial. It stimulates the central nervous system and acts as a mild diuretic. It is an effective treatment for both migraine headaches and various breathing difficulties, and some studies suggest that drinking coffee can help counteract the liver damage inflicted by alcohol. It does not build up in the body over time.

As always, however, too much of a good thing can mess you up, and I can personally testify to the horrors of caffeine overdose.

Many years ago, I stayed up all night to study for an exam, consuming several pots of double-strength Constant Comment tea. I had my last cup just before leaving for the exam. About 20 minutes into the exam, a powerful wave of wellbeing washed through me. I felt omniscient and omnipotent, as if I could get up and fly around the room. Bluebook in front of me, I prepared to write the greatest German exam in Georgetown history...

Then my face flushed bright red, and I broke out into a cold sweat. My hands started to shake, and my heart started pounding so hard I could hear the blood in my ear canals. I felt dizzy and nauseated, and nearly passed out.

Instead I stumbled to the restroom, where the night's tea made a hasty exit. My symptoms disappeared immediately, leaving me so tired I could barely stay awake for the exam.

According to the medical descriptions of caffeine overdose, my experience was typical. The body rids itself of caffeine quickly and efficiently in most cases of overdose, but in extreme situations, people can go into cardiac arrhythmia and convulsions, and -- on rare occasion -- even die.

Chronic caffeine overuse is a different issue. Caffeine sensitivity varies wildly among individuals. Because caffeine is physically addictive, people do build up a tolerance to it. The real problem with excessive use of caffeine over time is what happens when you try to quit, or can't maintain your regular consumption levels. Caffeine withdrawal can cause paralyzing headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, depression and -- surprisingly -- sleeplessness. If you want to quit caffeine, taper off over time rather than trying to go cold turkey. If you're a hard-core addict at risk of being cut off from your supply, carry a bottle of Excedrin with you; two Excedrin have enough caffeine to fend off the worst symptoms of withdrawal.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is that a Dalmatian?

Who's asking: Various neighbors and complete strangers, at least once a day

Dizzy has a black head with white spots and a white body with black spots, and many people assume that any black-and-white spotted dog must be a Dalmatian. Because he was a five-month-old stray when I adopted him, I don't actually know what he is, but my California vet's best guess was a mix of pointer and Lab. Dizzy has a Lab head and build, with pointer markings.

So when people ask me this question, I say, "No, he's pointer and Lab." Four times out of five, the person asking the question will say, "Huh. He looks like a Dalmatian."

This annoys me way more than it should, but Dizzy doesn't look anything like a Dalmatian. Dalmatians are smaller and more slightly-built, topping out at about 70 pounds. (Dizzy's fighting weight is about 80 pounds.) The Dalmatian breed standard calls for "round and well-defined spots, the more distinct the better." Dizzy's spots look like he knocked a can of black paint off a ladder.

Because I am a moron and my external hard drive isn't working, I can't post a photo of Dizzy today, but you can see one here. You can see some very cute pictures of Dalmatians here. Not the same type of dog at all.

No iPod Shuffle mix this morning, because I'm listening to The Who's new album, Endless Wire, an early birthday present from my friend Gary. Thanks, Gary... and thanks, Pete. You both rule.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What happened to my hair?

Who's asking: Sean Doolittle, Omaha, NE

Hey, have you voted yet? No? Then what are you doing reading this post? If you have time to surf the Internet, you have time to vote. Go vote, then come back and read this later. Thanks.

Okay, let me say this first: I find bald men who embrace their baldness -- by shaving their heads or keeping their hair very short -- extremely attractive. There's a confidence that goes with being fearlessly bald that no well-coiffed man can hope to achieve. And nothing is sadder than the men who cling to those last strands of hair, combing them sideways or forward in a losing effort that fools no one. Give it up, guys, and let your light shine (off the tops of your heads).

Without having access to your medical records, Sean, I'm guessing that your hair loss is a case of standard male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia (androgenetic = related to masculinity, alopecia = hair loss). This is an genetic trait that, contrary to conventional wisdom, can be inherited from either the mother's or the father's side. Everyone's hair falls out all the time; what happens in male pattern baldness is that these hairs don't get replaced, because high levels of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) cause the hair follicles to shrink and become inactive. Weirdly, this hormone only affects the follicles on top of the head, so hair on the rest of a man's body, up the neck and to about the tops of the ears, can grow as bushy as ever. (In these cases, I highly recommend judicious use of a razor.)

Baldness in primate species is the mark of the alpha male, and -- perhaps counterintuitively -- makes men look younger, after a certain point. A good friend of mine has been bald for as long as I've known him, going on 20 years now. Twenty years ago, at the age of 29, he looked ten years older than his age; now, as he approaches 50, he looks ten years younger.

People can lose their hair for other reasons besides male pattern baldness, so anyone who experiences sudden hair loss should go see a doctor. Nutritional deficiencies, exposure to radiation or certain poisons, and some serious illnesses can all cause sudden hair loss. Baldness can also be caused by alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can cause hair loss not only on one's head, but anywhere on the body. (Since you have eyebrows, Sean, I'm guessing this isn't your problem.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Can puppies be identical twins?

Who's asking: Hayley Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

Dogs are born in litters of anywhere from one to 15 puppies. The average size is between three and six puppies. These puppies are usually not identical to each other; each puppy starts as a separate egg and develops with its own placenta. In fact, puppies within a litter can even have different fathers (something I learned only recently), so they can look very different from each other.

For many years, people assumed that puppies were always fraternal twins. Fraternal twins (like my sister Kathy and me) are no more like each other than any other siblings.

In fact, puppies can be identical twins, but it's rare. Identical twins come from a single egg (monozygotic), and have the same DNA. Various environmental factors can make them look slightly different from each other, just as with humans. My younger sisters, for example, are identical twins, but even when they were younger, no one who was paying attention had trouble telling them apart.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Do politicians realize how slimy they become to get elected, and does it bother them personally?

Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

My brother James says he has gone on a news fast until after the election, but still can't avoid the advertisements on the History Channel. "This whole election has really started to bother me," he wrote. "I am going to vote because I feel it is my duty but I don't want to vote for any of them."

I feel the same way, and I think a lot of people do -- but to answer your question, no, I think most politicians don't feel they're being "slimy" on the campaign trail. If they felt that way, they couldn't keep campaigning; self-consciousness and shame would overwhelm them, and they'd have breakdowns on the trail.

Most politicians start out idealistic and become pragmatic, even cynical, over time, as their political careers become not callings but jobs. Many, if not most, politicians look at political campaigns as extended job interviews, and what we see on a campaign trail is interview behavior, magnified to a grotesque degree.

Experienced politicians often end up sounding just like each other because they all hire the same small group of media consultants, who coach them on their public appearances. Each consultant has his or her different style, but their wisdom boils down to a few bits of practical advice you can see on every Sunday morning TV show:
1) Look directly at your interviewer, but try to show a three-quarter profile to the camera, because that's most flattering.
2) Keep your chin and your voice down.
3) Begin each interview knowing one to three points you want to make, and don't let the interview end until you've made those points.
4) If you get a question you don't want to answer, answer the question you wish they'd asked instead.

There, I've just saved you all $500 in media training expenses. Feel free to send me a check.

But the result of all this media training is that we rarely see candidates have an actual conversation with anyone. Candidates' public appearances become interesting only when they forget their training and make a mistake -- so reporters, bored out of their minds at the 20th robotlike stump speech, fall all over each other to hype the smallest gaffe. This just makes candidates even more determined to stay "on message," offering no sign of weakness or originality.

It's a bad system. I wish we could go back to the old days of politics as live entertainment, when people would turn out for debates on a Sunday afternoon instead of staying home to watch football on TV.

Sorry I didn't post yesterday, but it's not going to get any better over the next several days. This week is a perfect storm of overcommitment, and posting will be haphazard. I've tried to figure out how to activate the RSS feed option, but it didn't work -- if you know how, send me an e-mail.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Why doesn't my hair feel clean when I rinse it with soft water?

Who's asking: Again, Anna Bragdon

Hard water is water with dissolved minerals in it; soft water is cleaner and purer, without these minerals. Soft water rinses cleaner and doesn't leave mineral deposits behind, which is why people with hard water and dishwashers often add something to the rinse water so their glasses aren't spotted. Soap lathers better in soft water, and soft water doesn't leave any residue behind on your skin or hair.

So it's counterintuitive that many people used to hard water, like Anna, say they don't feel as clean after a shower with soft water. It happens for a couple of reasons.

The first may be that people used to hard water habitually use more shampoo and soap, because it doesn't lather as well. It takes longer to rinse clean because you're using more soap than you really need.

The second is simply that human skin and hair are naturally oily. Hard water washes these oils away, requiring us to replace them with conditioner and moisturizer, but if we used soft water we might not need so much of those, either.

The reading list is short this week because I'm swamped with clients' manuscripts. Since I missed it Wednesday, here's an abbreviated random iPod list to make up for it:

"It's Going to Take Some Time," Dishwalla. This is from If I Were a Carpenter, a brilliant album of Carpenters covers.

"Marrakesh Express," Crosby, Stills & Nash. I'll get to Morocco someday.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana. I should make a CD now of the songs I will still want to listen to when I'm 80. This would be on it, and that does not embarrass me at all.

"I May Be Wrong," Hoagy Carmichael. This song was on the CD Brian & Scott gave out at their wedding reception last weekend. "I may be wrong, but I think you're wonderful..."

"Maybe it's Imaginary," Kirsty MacColl. This CD (Electric Landlady) did not leave my CD player for more than a year; it disappeared mysteriously, and I've only recently replaced it. Now it's in heavy rotation on my iTunes.

What I Read This Week

Sean Doolittle, The Cleanup. Last year's Rain Dogs was one of those books that made me excited to read the author's next work, because he was obviously sharpening his skills for something great. The Cleanup more than delivers on that promise; it is a realistic, compassionate, absolutely gripping thriller in the very best noir tradition. Disgraced, recently-divorced cop Matt Worth has been busted down to night patrol at an Omaha supermarket. The only bright spot in his world is Gwen, a quiet, pretty checkout girl who often has bruises she won't explain. One night Gwen tells Matt she needs to show him something. First she shows him the evidence of a near-fatal beating -- and then she shows him the dead body of the man who did it. Matt decides that Gwen won't pay for this crime, and takes it on himself to dispose of the body and the corpse's car. What Matt doesn't know is that the car contains something a lot of people want very badly. Doolittle lays out a complex plot so clearly he could be an architect, and every character rings true. Bravo.

Stephen King, Lisey's Story. This book is getting the most mixed and vehement reviews of King's long career, and I understand why; it's not his usual fare, and yet it's so unmistakably King's work that shallow people don't know what to make of it. Lisey Landon is the widow of bestselling, award-winning author Scott Landon, and left with the responsibility of sorting out and giving away the overwhelming contents of his office. The people who want Scott's papers are getting more and more aggressive, and one of them is outright deranged. As Lisey fights him off and deals with her own sister's mental collapse, she draws on her memories of life with Scott for strength and guidance -- even though some of those memories are frightening, and some seem downright insane. Lisey's Story is a powerfully intimate book about marriage and imagination, a brave gift from a writer who's never gotten the respect he deserves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Are there any babies in Shakespeare's plays?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

My knee-jerk response to this question was, "Oh, sure" -- but when I went looking for infants in my Collected Shakespeare, they were pretty hard to find. It makes sense, I suppose, since even women didn't perform on stage on Shakespeare's time.

As far as I can tell, the only Shakespeare play that calls for a baby on stage is The Winter's Tale (Act II, Scene iii). Paulina enters with the baby Perdita, who is banished from her father's court because her father, King Leontes, thinks she's someone else's child. Shakespeare mentions the baby Queen Elizabeth, though not by name, at the end of Henry VIII, but we don't see her.

The Winter's Tale also has a speaking role for a child (Perdita's older brother, Mamillius, in Act II, Scene i). The only other plays with roles for young children seem to be Richard III (with a girl and boy who are children of the murdered Duke of Clarence and the doomed young princes who are sons of King Edward) and Macbeth, in which Macduff's son has lines.

I consulted my old friend John Erath, who knows much more Shakespeare than I do, and he came up with a few more possibilities. The "groaning Juliet" in Measure for Measure could have a baby in arms at the end of the play; Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream has a "lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king," who could be a baby. Shakespeare's plays often have crowd scenes, so if a proud parent wanted a child to make an early Shakespearian debut, it could certainly be as a carried-on extra.

It's entirely possible that I've missed something, so if you can think of any other small children in Shakespeare's plays, post it below.

To continue the theatrical theme, I invite everyone in the Augusta area to come out for Gaslight Theater's production of The Mousetrap, which opens tonight. Performances run tonight and next Thursday at 7:30, this weekend and next weekend at 8:00 p.m.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Is it appropriate for George Allen to make James Webb's novels an issue in the Virginia Senate campaign?

Who's asking: Peter Schleck, Washington, DC

If you've been watching any U.S. news in the past week or so, you've seen some of the recent manufactured uproar over scenes in novels written by James Webb, candidate for the U.S. Senate from the commonwealth of Virginia. Apparently, campaign workers for George Allen had been trying for weeks to get reporters to focus on passages in Webb's novels that they consider demeaning to women, and particularly on one scene in which an Asian peasant takes his four-year-old son's penis in his mouth as a gesture of affection.

Responsible media outlets ignored these attempts until Matt Drudge blasted it on his website, at which point the story became the controversy and "outrage," not the passages of the books themselves.

Peter asked, "Whaddya think?" and I think the whole thing is disgusting, from beginning to end.

First, novelists make stuff up. To ascribe the viewpoint or behavior of a fictional character to an author is ignorant at best and lunatic at worst. I just finished Stephen King's latest novel; in one particularly harrowing scene, a deranged man takes a can opener to the main character's breast. Do I think that Stephen King endorses this behavior, or has fantasized about doing this himself? Hell, no. (In fact, I wish Stephen King was running for Governor of Maine -- he'd be a better choice than any of the official candidates. But that's another post.)

Second, this manufacturing of outrage -- and then pandering and weaseling to deflect the outrage -- has got to stop. It's exhausting, it demeans everyone involved, and it cancels out the effectiveness of genuine outrage in the few situations that call for genuine outrage (e.g., Abu Ghraib, inadequate death benefits for military families, the terrifying national debt).

On the subject of cheap and easy outrage, let's talk for a minute about John Kerry's slip of the tongue yesterday, when he said that kids who didn't do well in school would end up stuck in Iraq. He says he didn't mean to say that -- what he meant to say was that kids who didn't do well in school would end up getting other people stuck in Iraq -- but the manufactured outrage over this remark hides some deeper, bitter truths that we ought to be talking about, rather than shouting about who loves our soldiers more.

The first of these truths is that the U.S. as a nation is stuck in Iraq. The second of these truths is that individual soldiers (including some of our best and brightest) are stuck in Iraq, held there past the terms of their original enlistment because no troops are available to replace them. The third of these truths is that educated or not, many of our young people are stuck in Iraq because there are no jobs for them at home, unless they want to work for hourly wages without health benefits.

Why aren't the candidates talking about these things? Why didn't John Kerry take this opportunity to say, "Yeah, I misspoke, but let's talk about this"?

I'm disgusted, disgusted with all of it and all of them. For God's sake, everyone, figure out what you're really outraged about, and go vote next Tuesday.